Friday, January 02, 2004

I Experience Music

As I mentioned earlier, my nephew John Michael is in town this week, and on the first day of his trip, we braved the wet and wind to take in the Space Needle and the Experience Music Project. Little did we realize that this was the best weather we would encounter in his trip out here. (He's currently at the Asian Art Museum with Aunt Kate as I write this), and there's still snow on the ground here.

Anyway, the Experience Music Project, or EMP, is a housed in a twisted, melted building at the base of the Space Needle, and one of the ugliest structures in the universe. It is designed in exterior curves that defy the human eye and the human mind to put any exact shape to, and is painted a motley collection of contrasting reds, blues, and yellows. The finished building (and yeah, it IS finished) looks like Godzilla had a technicolor accident at the Seattle Center.

I want to say that the building looks better from the inside, but it doesn't. The curves and space (and the fact it is built around the monorail as well) creates a lot of dead zones and overly high ceilings. When to you pack in the requisite admissions area, gift shop, resturant, bar (both capable of hosting live bands), sweeping staircases, make-your-own video concession, and a huge open space with a jumbotron used for corporate receptions, there isn't a whole lot of room for the exhibits and the music itself. At one point, there was a theme ride (!), but that has been disabled so they can put the Experience Science Fiction project in instead.

OK, the architecture just sucks, but the exhibits are well worth it. My nephew and I got "borged up" - fitted with the headphones, CD memory, and electronic pointers that played tracks of the local rock 'n roll heroes (I set mine to Hendrix, John Michael set his to Nirvana) and provided more information on the exhibits. The resulting experience was a little odd - completely informative, but also distinct and individual, as everyone was listening the exhibits at different rates and in different orders. Still, I really recommend you spend the ten minutes in line getting outfitted.

Most people broke in on the History of Guitars, which is an incredible tour from the early guitars of the middle ages through the Hawai'ian and into the early Fenders and Gibsons and on to the present day. Here the borging really shows off, because you can hear every guitar play in the exhibit, and you get a feeling for how they were used. You also get the feeling that guitars were and are an experimenter's field, and that people continue to dink around the them, looking for new sounds.

The other main floor exhibit is on Pacific Northwest music. It bemoans the fact that, being so far out of the mainstream, this area often seems isolated, but that very isolation has helped it in producing good music, from jazz to heavy metal (including, oddly, to me, Heart), to Grunge/Nirvana and post-Grunge Riot Grrls. And of course more renditions of "Louie, Louie" than you EVER want to hear again.

Second floor is a bit spotty on its history, ranging from early R&B through displays for Dylan, Joplin, and Cash (the original Man In Black), and a big shrine to Jimmy Hendrix. A lot of holy shards of destroyed guitars are in this last area, a counterpoint to carefully presented instruments of destruction just below.

There was a "hands on" exhibit, but it was overrun with small children and we could not get near the exhibits to get hands on. And there were two temporary exhibits. The Annie Liebowitz photo exhibit was excellent, and the borg-voices a requirement, giving the photographer's own insights on the various pieces. The last exhibit was on the Chicago Blues, and was tucked away in the basement - we only found in on the way out, and it was nearly depopulated (remember what I said about the horrible architectural design?) Good exhibits, gone to waste because no one knew they were there.

What struck me through all the exhibits was the low-level, amateur, in-the-garage sort of feeling for true rock-n-roll, both in the music and in the technology. Part of it comes from Paul Allen, who saw Microsoft go from garage to goliath, but also, more than most "industry museums" it stresses the art, which happens at the low levels, as opposed to the smooth, finished product that is churned out from the music mills today (Or as a bumper sticker puts it - "Corporate Rock STILL Sucks"). We had grunge up here because there was the Boeing Depression in the 80s, so housing was cheap and young people moved in. We had "Louie Louie" because it the local DJs in the 50s also played sock hops and mixed with the local bands. We had Heavy Metal because there was a need to make some noise. The Northwest provided musical raw material like it produced lumber, which was then shipped out a finished elsewhere.

All in all, its a great museum in a horrible building, and it is redeemed by technology. I like parts of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland better, but all in all, this was a greatly enjoyable experience, and is on the must-visit list for bringing the out-of-towners to, "Louie, Louie" and all.

More Later, Me Gotta Go Now.